Patrick Porter writes:
The road to strategic hell is paved with good intentions. Consider the words of General Sir David Richards, the chief of defence staff. We can’t defeat al-Qaida and its ilk, he believes, but we can contain it. In other words, we might never destroy it physically or ideologically but we can limit its potency and lethality “to the point that our lives and our children’s lives” are “led securely”. Amen to that.
But what does “containment” look like? It is a moveable idea. During the cold war, containment meant different things to George Kennan, its intellectual architect, and the later US presidents who expanded and militarised it.
At its best, it is a practical idea. It holds that, without exhausting or overextending ourselves, we can bound a threat and curtail its ability to operate, then wait patiently for it to wither into an irrelevance or nuisance. It works well with a self-defeating enemy, be it the Soviet Union with its doomed Marxist-Leninist system and imperial overstretch, or al-Qaida, a movement that habitually alienates the very Muslims it claims to represent. Containment is not only about outlasting the enemy, but about keeping costs down and avoiding self-defeating behaviour.
But General Richards’s containment is more ambitious. It involves “upstream prevention”, “education and democracy” and – judging by his other recent remarks – maybe a future military intervention in Yemen. He doesn’t favour more military interventions now, but it would be “barmy to say that one day we wouldn’t be back in that position”.
This means using our (depleted) wealth, our (reduced) military and our (dubious) confidence that we know what is good for others.